Today, let’s pay tribute to a local legend, the late Wesley Willis. When I moved into the city from the ‘burbs in the early ‘90s, he was a ubiquitous presence. Wesley was a big dude who you’d see at shows or in the middle of the street, hawking his ink pen drawings of cityscapes and other things. He’d greet many folks with a head butt. Wesley was schizophrenic, and in addition to his visual art, he bought a cheap Casio keyboard and began composing and recording brief songs, often depicting shows he’d seen, with direct, narrative lyrics, ending almost every song with “Rock over London/rock on Chicago” followed by some advertising catch phrase, like “Cadillac – it’s got style.” He later fronted the hard rock Wesley Willis Fiasco. As with other outsider art (ex. – Daniel Johnston), the question was always whether Wesley was being exploited, and that can be debated. All I can say is that he was a memorable part of the Chicago music scene and he sure seemed to enjoy being a part of it. In honor of Wesley, please grab your iPod or MP3 player, hit shuffle and share the first 10 songs that come up.
The Headboys – Take It All Down (The Headboys): This Scottish pop band had a few fizzy pop tunes and got signed in the frenzy to release anything vaguely new wave. But the best work from this band was a poppier take on prog rockers like Peter Gabriel. This song sounds like Peter Gabriel fronting a really good ‘70s bar band. Nice, but they have better stuff on their sole album.
The Lemonheads – Alison’s Starting To Happen (It’s A Shame About Ray): A swell cover of this pithy pop tune from the Aussie band Smudge. This is right in Evan Dando’s wheelhouse, and is one of the best cuts on The Lemonheads’ breakthrough album.
Mott The Hoople – Roll Away The Stone (The Hoople): One of many classic Mott The Hoople singles. This song mixes ‘50s rock piano with an epic glam rock melody that sounds like a precursor to Suede. The song is played with maximum intensity and Ian Hunter is possessed.
Hawksley Workman – God Decides (Ruff Mix)(My Little Toothless Beauties): The Canadian quirk popper is so prolific that he regularly puts out albums of unreleased material and sells them on tour. This is a track from one of those albums, a moody epic which builds in intensity.
Pavement – Unseen Power Of A Picket Fence (Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain: L.A.’s Desert Origins): This has some nasty bluesy guitar riffing at the beginning before settling into a typical rhythm, while Stephen Malkmus pays tribute to R.E.M., namechecking many of their songs. I disagree with him about the quality of “Time After Time”.
Superchunk – Martinis On The Roof (Indoor Living): A driving mid-tempo Superchunk tune. This has a real groove to it, and the rhythm section is really locked in. This allows the melody and lead guitar a lot of room to operate. It’s a nice mix of rough and winsome.
Fleetwood Mac – Although The Sun Is Shining (They Play On): This comes from an earlier, bluesier edition of the band. This is a gentle acoustic interlude, with slight psychedelic folk overtones.
Eggstone – The Dog (Somersault): This may not have been the best of the Swedish power pop bands of the ‘90s, but this song may be the best on to come out of the country. It is certainly one of my all-time favorites, built on four distinctive parts – the swinging verses with silly lyrics which lead into the screaming guitars and mega catchy chorus. Throw in a great middle eight and guitar solo, and, after the last chorus, a pretty instrumental coda, and it’s pretty epic.
The Shins – Know Your Onion! (Oh, Inverted World): The Shins are a polished musical act now. Not that they were rough and undisciplined in the beginning, but early classics like this song have an energy and freshness that wore away over time. The newer stuff is fine, but it can’t match the early tunes.
The Swingin’ Neckbreakers – The Flop (Kick Your Ass): The Neckbreakers tried a few times to get new dance crazes off the ground. This is a pretty easy one, since all you have to do is fall to the ground. King Khan should cover this.